Is Lieberman Sinking?
Remember Joe Lieberman? Apparently Democratic donors don't.


Jim Geraghty

By a lot of measuring sticks, Sen. Joseph Lieberman is having only a marginally better spring than the Detroit Tigers.

When the latest Federal Election Commission campaign-finance filings were released last week, Lieberman’s campaign revealed it had collected about $3 million in the last three months. That total was way behind the roughly $7 million that Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards each raised, a bit behind Rep. Dick Gephardt’s $3.6 million, and only $400,000 more than former Gov. Howard Dean.

This spurred a round of headlines like “Lieberman Campaign in Financial Trouble” (News 12 Connecticut), “Lieberman, Raising Less, Spends Proportionally More” (the New York Times), and “Lieberman Has Yet To Electrify Key Backers” (the Hartford Courant).

For most candidates, ranking fourth out of ten Democratic candidates in national fundraising wouldn’t be too bad — unless your name is Joe Lieberman.

“By all that’s normal and conventional, he should be way ahead,” says Don Greenberg, a political-science professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut. “He’s the titular head of the party. He was a very popular candidate, who just a few years ago ran with a candidate who won the popular vote and came within a Supreme Court vote of winning the presidency. He received enormously favorable press coverage during campaign, and he’s been a strong supporter of the war. When you see he only has raised half as much as Kerry, and only a little more than Dean, it doesn’t bode well for him.”

And Lieberman’s fundraising in his home state, while not bad, isn’t what some might expect. In Connecticut, Lieberman raised $643,210 over the last quarter, while Kerry raised $139,450 there and Edwards raised $123,100. By comparison, Massachusetts donors gave $1.6 million to Kerry, $217,396 to Dean, $82,400 to Gephardt, and $42,000 to Lieberman. On Dean’s home turf of Vermont, the former governor collected $214,817, and no other candidate raised more than $250 in that state.

“According to our local news, Lieberman raised $60,000 at a fundraiser the other night in his own state,” Greenberg says. “Considering the amount of wealth in the state of Connecticut, you would have expected him to raise two or three times that.”

Lieberman’s poll numbers in the early primary states aren’t looking that hot, either. In Iowa, where most Democratic primary voters are passionately antiwar, “Lieberman’s expectations are lower than Iowa cornstalks in January” as the Courant’s David Lightman put it.

The latest New Hampshire poll provided something of an unpleasant shock for Lieberman supporters. The April 3 Franklin Pierce College poll of 606 likely New Hampshire Democratic presidential-primary voters found Kerry with 20.6 percent, Dean with 20.5 percent, and Lieberman in a distant third with 8.6 percent.

Lieberman still leads the pack of Democratic presidential hopefuls in South Carolina, but in a poll of likely primary voters conducted in early March, the Connecticut senator received 12 percent of the vote, a two-point lead over Gephardt at 10 percent, with a margin of error is +/- 4.1 percent.

An adviser to one of Lieberman’s rivals attributes the Connecticut senator’s campaign doldrums to a poorly defined message and a confusion over what, exactly, their man stands for.

“He’s running far left socially, deserting the socially conservative credentials that defined him in the first place, and getting nothing for it,” the adviser says. “He’s not raising money because many liberal Jewish voters still remember he was once in their minds a social conservative and remains a hawk. He’s not getting press from the media elites because the Joe Klein types think he’s forgotten who he is. He’s not generating political support because in running left he’s just seemed like everyone else, just later to get there and phonier because of where he used to be… He has reinvented himself and done it suicidally.”

But Greenberg rejects the idea that Lieberman’s having a political identity crisis.

“He’s always been socially liberal and hawkish on foreign affairs, supporting a strong defense posture,” he says. “I don’t particularly think he’s tried to reinvent himself. He may have tried to emphasize certain views to certain people, but I don’t think that Lieberman is significantly different now than what he’s been for last 12 or 15 years.”

Of course, with more than eight months before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, it’s way too early to write Lieberman’s political obituary.

Spokesmen for Lieberman say his latest campaign-cash numbers are misleading because his fundraising did not accelerate to full speed until late February, when finance director Shari Yost began her job. They suggest his fundraising efforts in his home state were hampered by senior Sen. Christopher J. Dodd’s late presidential decision, and they expect Connecticut dollars to come in more rapidly in the next quarter. (We’ll know if this assessment is accurate in three months.)

Lieberman has also made some high-profile campaign hirings. He announced last week the hiring of Mandy Grunwald as his media adviser for the 2004 presidential campaign. Grunwald made ads for Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential campaign and for Hillary Rodham Clinton in her 2000 bid for the Senate. She joins another Clinton adviser, Mark Penn, the pollster for President Clinton’s reelection campaign and for Sen. Clinton’s 2000 race.

And the successful conclusion of military operations against Saddam Hussein’s regime has given the mild-mannered Lieberman a chance for a little chest-thumping and an understated “I-told-you-so” to his rivals.

During an April 9 forum in Washington, Lieberman said, “During this debate, some were for the war. Some were against it. Some were seemingly both for it and against it” — a remark widely regarded as a shot at Kerry. In an interview with the Associated Press on April 10, Lieberman said the collapse of Iraqi forces and the specter of crowds in Baghdad cheering U.S. soldiers brought him satisfaction.

“It was a thrill to see the Iraqi crowds so excited about their freedom,” Lieberman said. “It made me feel good and, in that sense, I felt vindicated.”

Lieberman has also picked up the endorsement of about a dozen House Democrats in the past month. None of the lawmakers were big names or big surprises, but their endorsement is a reassuring sign to Lieberman backers that at least some the party’s elected officials see him as the best shot to beat Bush and win the presidency.

But the crowded Democratic primary has been dominated by a lot of fresh faces, and many of them appeal to a particular niche in the party. For trial lawyers, there’s Edwards; for the antiwar crowd seeking fiery rhetoric, there’s Dean; for the almost-Naderites, there’s Dennis Kucinich; and Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton will target African-American voters. To many of those constituencies, Lieberman may seem like yesterday’s news.

“Lieberman isn’t the flavor of month, and there may be some Democrats who want to look forward, not backward,” Greenberg says. “Harry Truman said that if you run the same race you ran four years ago, you’ll have the same results. Some Democratic voters may see him as a replay of 2000, or be thinking that a Lieberman campaign would not do as well as Gore-Lieberman did. Some Democrats may be saying. ‘He’s old hat, and we need someone new and different.’”

Jim Geraghty, an NRO contributor, is a reporter with States News Service in Washington, D.C.